22 Seriously Salty Foods—and What to Eat Instead if You're Cutting Back on Sodium
From preserving food to adding flavor, salt pretty much revolutionized how humans ate back in the day. Fast forward to modern times, however, and many of us are getting too much of a good thing: Salt contains the mineral sodium, which in large quantities can have a negative impact on health.
According to the CDC, about 90% of people in the U.S. are exceeding recommended limits for daily sodium intake. And table salt is far from the only source—everything from your morning toast to desserts can tip your intake upward. Fortunately, a little know-how about sodium intake recommendations—and where sodium comes from in a typical diet—can help you make informed choices about which foods to eat on any given day.
Read on as nutrition experts share some surprising dietary sources of sodium, plus lower-sodium alternatives and handy cooking advice to help you cut back on salt.
How do high-sodium foods affect health?
First things first: Sodium is naturally found in many foods and carries out several important jobs throughout the body, says Su-Nui Escobar, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The mineral helps nerves and muscles function, and is crucial for regulating blood pressure, as well as fluid levels.
Thing is, we don’t need much. “Depending on how much you sweat, the foods you eat, and your metabolism, your body only needs about 500 mg of sodium a day, the amount in less than ¼ tsp of salt,” says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, head of nutrition and wellness at WW.
So if 500 mg is the amount a person requires from a biological standpoint, how much is too much? Anything over 2,300 mg a day, according to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Even given that wiggle room, most adults in the U.S. are consuming far more: about 3,400 mg of sodium per day on average. Excess sodium can cause our bodies to retain fluid, Escobar says. “And this can raise blood pressure, potentially leading to damage to the heart, kidneys, or liver,” she explains. And while it’s true that some individuals can eat a high-sodium diet without developing high blood pressure, there’s no test to determine who falls into that category. Meanwhile, hypertension affects nearly half of adults in the U.S.—about 108 million people. High sodium intake is also associated with an increased incidence of stomach cancer, according to a review published in Cancer Science.
Foods high in sodium
If you’re looking to cut back on sodium, think beyond the salt shaker. More than 70% of our total sodium intake comes from packaged and prepared foods. That’s where Nutrition Facts labels can come in handy. When you’re shopping for packaged, canned, or frozen foods, check the items’ percent Daily Value (DV) for sodium. “In general, a 5% DV for sodium is considered low, and 20% [and higher] is high,” Escobar says. This translates to 115 mg (or less) of sodium per serving for a low-sodium food and 460 mg (or more) for a high-sodium food.
If you’ve been eyeballing nutrition labels for a few years, you might notice that some of your favorite foods seem higher in sodium than they once were. For the first time since 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that manufacturers update serving sizes to better reflect the larger portions many consumers actually eat. This mandate went into effect in 2020, and certain brands have until July 2021 to make changes. For foods getting a bump in serving sizes, DV percentages for sodium will increase accordingly.
That said, no single food in isolation of everything else you’re eating can make or break your health. If you’re looking to cut down on sodium intake, it may help to assess your overall diet and stay mindful of all sodium sources, from obvious salt bombs to more easily overlooked foods such as condiments. Here’s a closer look at 22 common foods that may contain more sodium than you realize.
1. Deli meat
There’s a reason sandwiches are among the biggest sources of sodium in our diets: Cold cuts are often loaded with the mineral. While every brand is different, one little slice of deli-style chicken can contain 289 mg of sodium. London’s suggested swap: Instead of deli meat, try using leftovers from whole roasts or rotisserie chicken without the skin. (One slice of skinless rotisserie chicken has 98 mg of sodium.) Another idea: Rethink the ratio of your sandwich. Keep meat amounts modest and load up on flavorful low-sodium extras that are also packed with key nutrients like avocado, leafy greens, caramelized onions, tomatoes, balsamic mushrooms, and more.
2. Cured meat
Charcuterie boards are loaded with sodium due in part to meats like salami and prosciutto. Because salt is used in the curing process, one serving (three slices) of a popular salami brand can pack over 500 mg of sodium. There’s no simple swap for these savory foods, but choose low-sodium versions when they’re available, or slice meat thinly so you can enjoy the flavor while minimizing the salt. Add more color (and bulk!) to your appetizer spread with ingredients like fresh or dried fruit, sliced veggies, and plain toasted nuts.
3. Canned fish
From salmon to sardines, canned fish offers a convenient and cost-effective way to increase your seafood intake—something most adults in the U.S. could stand to do. Just be aware that one 6.5-oz can of tuna in water can contain around 366 mg of sodium, compared to 83 mg in the fresh variety. If fresh seafood isn’t an option, canned varieties with no added salt are a good bet. Try them seasoned with fresh herbs and citrus juice.
4. Frozen shrimp
Shrimp contains zero saturated fat; on that point, it’s a heart-healthy protein choice. But in its frozen form, the shellfish is generally much higher in sodium due to a salt solution used in the preservation process. Indeed, it’s not unusual for a 3-oz serving of cooked, frozen shrimp to contain 300 mg of sodium, while fresh has about one-third that amount. Opt for fresh shrimp when feasible, or compare labels of frozen varieties to find the option lowest in sodium.
5. Vegetable juice
Manufacturers add salt to bottled and canned veggie juice to boost and preserve flavor, which bumps the sodium to about 308 mg in a typical serving. Many brands offer lower-sodium versions of their classic veggie beverages. Homemade, veggie-rich smoothies and drinks might be an option, too. Try whipping up one of WW’s green smoothies, or create your own blend—a great way to use up leftover produce.
If you’re a member of the “cheese makes everything taste better” club, bear in mind sodium levels vary pretty widely within the category. Case in point: Many brands of blue cheese can have upwards of 325 mg of sodium per 1-oz serving, halloumi can clock in at 300 mg per slice, and some American cheese options contain 269 mg per slice. Swiss and cream cheese fall towards the other end of the sodium spectrum with 39 mg per slice and 89 mg per 1-oz serving, respectively. When in doubt: Check the nutrition labels. While there’s no one-to-one sub for those higher-sodium cheeses, you can make some delicious swaps like using avocado slices as a creamy sandwich ingredient or lightening up your mac and cheese with puréed carrots and cauliflower.
7. Cottage cheese
Low-fat cottage cheese is high in protein and packed with calcium. Just note that a ½ cup serving of certain brands can deliver 380 mg of sodium. One swap to consider: low-fat Greek yogurt. A 7-oz serving contains only 68 mg of sodium and packs 20 grams of protein and 230 mg of calcium. Add figs and honey for a sweet-yet-satisfying snack.
Many foods that are high in sodium don’t actually taste salty. Some ketchup brands can have 154 mg of sodium per tablespoon, which quickly multiplies if you enjoy the popular condiment with fries, sandwiches, and just about everything else. Instead, consider opting for low-sodium ketchup, which can cut the sodium to about 3 mg per serving without sacrificing the classic tomatoey tang.
9. Salad dressing
Though convenient, bottled salad dressings can be surprising sources of sodium (not to mention added sugar). For example, 1 Tbsp of a bottled Italian dressing can have 146 mg of sodium. Make your own dressing, and you can control the amount of every ingredient—including salt. Or go super simple with a classic olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzle.
Premade sauces are a pantry staple, but they often contain extra salt for flavor. For example, commercially made pesto can pack 637 mg of sodium in a ¼-cup serving, while a similar serving of jarred alfredo clocks in at 330 mg. One way to dial down the salt is to prep a big batch of your favorite sauce at home. Freeze it in small portions, and you’ll always have some on hand.
Mixing up a garlic-soy blend for steak? Just 1 Tbsp of soy sauce contains about 879 mg of sodium. When making marinades, use low-sodium versions of your favorite condiments, and lean on sodium-free extras like garlic, fresh citrus juice, herbs, and spices.
Consider bread another factor in the high sodium count of many sandwiches. Two slices of white bread can contain 268 mg of sodium, while a hamburger bun might contain 257 mg or so. At the store, you may wish to shop for lower-sodium varieties without salted tops. Another shopping tip: “Opt for thinly sliced bread, sandwich thins, or pitas,” London says. “The thinner the slice, the less sodium you’ll usually get.”
13. Canned beans
Canned beans are convenient and nutritious, but often high in added salt. Look for options labeled “low-sodium” at the grocery store or cook a batch of dried beans to store in the fridge and use throughout the week. “The change in sodium content between canned and home-cooked beans can be very significant,” Escobar says. A typical 3.5-ounce serving of canned black beans has 384 mg of sodium, while the same amount of home-cooked has only 3 mg, according to a study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences.
Pretzels are the ultimate salty snack, and they’re just that: salty. Exact numbers differ depending on brand, but it’s not uncommon for a small, single-serving bag to contain 347 mg of sodium, while 10 salted twists can contain nearly 750 mg. If you’re watching your sodium intake and want something crunchy, London recommends roasted chickpeas (just be sure to use low-sodium beans or give them a good rinse before popping in the oven). You can also snack on unsalted air-popped popcorn—at less than 1 mg of sodium per 1-cup serving, popped, it’s great on its own or dressed up with some flavorful seasonings.
15. Packaged soups & stocks
Similar to canned beans, premade soups, broths, and stocks can be loaded with salt to help preserve flavor and extend their shelf life. Some brands of chunky minestrone soup, for example, can have 1,550 mg of sodium per can. Meanwhile, 1 cup of chicken broth may have 860 mg of sodium. Opt for home-cooked soup and when possible (WW’s slow cooker chicken noodle soup and veggie soup are member faves). No time to make homemade stock for your next recipe? Look for low- or reduced-sodium options in the supermarket.
16. Frozen meals
Packaged frozen meals can’t be beat in terms of convenience, but many are high in sodium. A 1-cup serving of frozen cheese lasagna can have 639 mg of sodium. Making your own frozen dinners is one way to reduce your sodium intake and still have grab-and-go meal options when you’re short on time. Try designating one day a month to cook a big batch of freezer-friendly meals, then freeze in single- or family-size servings depending on your household needs.
Every pizza joint has its own special recipe, but ’za is generally high in sodium. For example, one slice of a 14-inch, fast food-style cheese pizza packs 640 mg of sodium. That’s not to say pizza can’t be part of an overall healthy pattern of eating. It’s all about how you build the pie. Whether ordering from your local pizzeria or making your own, try halving salty ingredients like cheese and pepperoni and doubling up on flavorful veggies like cherry tomatoes, peppers, and baby spinach.
18. Plant-based meat alternatives
Despite a health halo surrounding them, some plant-based meat alternatives can contain high amounts of sodium, Escobar says. One slice of vegetarian meatloaf packs 308 mg of sodium, while a similar serving of seitan has 340 mg. How? Certain products may be pre-seasoned. Double-check the label before choosing a brand or try other plant-based protein sources, such as tofu, tempeh, and unsalted nuts.
19. Sports drinks
OK, these beverages are purposely high in sodium—you’ll find about 260 mg in a 20-oz bottle—to help replace the sodium athletes lose through serious sweating. But unless you’re engaged in moderate- or high-intensity activity for more than an hour, you probably don’t need to replenish with extra sodium, London says. For the average workout, unflavored water (flat or sparkling) is likely all you need to stay hydrated and healthy.
A key ingredient in everything from pancakes to crispy onion rings, buttermilk contains about 256 mg of sodium per 1-cup serving, with low-fat versions often containing even more (361 mg or so per cup). For a quick buttermilk swap with only about 100 mg of sodium per cup, borrow the technique seen in this WW biscuit recipe: In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup milk with 3 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or white vinegar. Use as you would regular buttermilk.
21. Pudding mix
Sure, pudding you stir up from powdered mixes tastes sweet, but there’s a counterintuitive reason for that: salt. Often added during processing as a contrasting note, salt helps the sugary notes pop. While some brands are higher in sodium than others, a portion of chocolate pudding mix from one brand (enough to make ½ cup) contains 443 mg of sodium. Compare labels to find lower-sodium options, or whip up your own double-chocolate homemade pudding in 10 minutes.
Pickles are known for their salty crunch, so it’s not shocking that some spears contain 323 mg of sodium a pop. While all pickled and fermented foods will have some level of sodium due to the preservation process, many stores stock reduced-sodium options. You can also try your hand at pickling your own cucumbers with WW’s simple hot and sweet recipe (which reduces the sodium per serving by nearly 100 mg). Beets, carrots, wax beans, and other veggies are great for pickling, too.
Tips for cutting back on salty foods
Reducing sodium intake is all about making small changes you can stick with long-term. Here are some additional pointers to help you out along the way:
Know your packaging lingo: We already talked about reading the Nutrition Facts label for the DV percentage, but you’ll also want to scan the packaging for lower-sodium buzzwords. It’s not just marketing hype—the following terms have clear definitions set by the FDA.
- Salt-free: The food contains no more than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
- Very low sodium: The food contains 35 mg or less per serving.
- Low-sodium: The food contains no more than 140 mg of sodium.
- Reduced sodium: The food contains at least 25% less sodium than the regular version of the food.
- Lightly salted: The food contains at least 50% less sodium than the regular version.
- Unsalted/no salt added: Both terms mean that no salt was added during processing. The food itself may still contain sodium, however.
- Cook as much as you can at home: When you dine out or order in, it’s hard to know exactly how your food was prepared. Cooking lets you control how much salt goes into your meals—and home cooks generally use less than restaurant chefs do, London says. When you don’t have time to make a full meal, consider prepping a quick low-sodium side dish to go with your takeout order—think: a side of broccolini to pair with your pizza delivery, or a quick tossed salad to go with your drive-through burger.
- Rinse canned ingredients: Whenever you can, look for low-sodium canned beans and veggies. But if you accidentally grab one without reading the label or find a long-lost can in the back of your pantry, there’s no need to toss it. Instead, drain it as usual, then place the contents in a colander and rinse under running water. This, plus the initial drain, can reduce the sodium by up to 41%, according to a study published in the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology.
The upshot: Should you cut back on high-sodium foods?
Many adults in the U.S. consume more sodium than health experts recommend having—largely through packaged and prepared foods. But rather than stressing out over high-sodium foods you “shouldn’t” eat, you may benefit from focusing on lower-sodium options to boost in your diet, London says. One simple approach is to prioritize fresh items whenever you can—including whole grains, fruits, and veggies—and cook more of your own meals so you have more control over the amount of salt you’re eating. Experiment with low- and no-sodium flavor boosters like lemon juice, vinegars, spices, and fresh herbs including basil, cilantro, rosemary, sage, tarragon, mint, and oregano. If you are living with a health condition like hypertension, check with your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian for a personalized nutrition plan. Whatever your situation, delicious meals are definitely possible with less sodium.
Nicole Saporita is a senior content manager for consumer wellness at WW. A writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York, she specializes in health & wellness, lifestyle, consumer products, and more. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and REDBOOK magazines.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in July 2021 by Michelle Cardel, PhD, MS, RD, director of global clinical research and nutrition at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.